A good rule in foreign relations is that not every problem can be fixed. The US seems well aware that it cannot help fix the problems of one-party rule in Laos, which has been controlled by an authoritarian communist party since 1975. Conscious of this, Washington rarely comments on human-rights abuses by Vientiane, hasn’t provided too much aid to the country (except for clearing up its own unexploded ordnance from the 1970s), and doesn’t think it necessary to impose punitive measures.

Yet the US thinks it can help fix the Cambodia problem. To put the matter briefly, Kem Sokha, the leader of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was arrested for treason on scant evidence in September 2017. Two months later, the CNRP for forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government with the support of Americans or the American government (the distinction isn’t strongly drawn by proponents of this allegation).

Journalists have been arrested (two on espionage charges), non-governmental organizations intimidated into silence and activists jailed on questionable charges. This is only a thumbnail sketch of the problem. Then, in July, the CPP easily won a general election (in the process taking all 125 seats in parliament) that many in the international community, especially the US, deemed “illegitimate.”

The United States responded to the CNRP’s dissolution by imposing visa sanctions on Cambodian officials, withdrew some aid commitments, stopped its financial support of the National Election Commission, and refused to send monitors for July’s general election.

Additionally, financial sanctions have been imposed on the head of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s private bodyguard unit, while the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, passed by the US House of Representatives, would impose similar financial sanctions on senior officials within the government, military and business world, and on Hun Sen’s family. This has yet to pass the US Senate.

More often than not, the phrase used to justify these sanctions is that the Cambodian leaders are ‘undermining democracy.’ That’s clear. Less clear, however, are the solutions or desired outcomes. Some are rather broad and ill-defined

Yet rather than economic sanctions (which the European Union has threatened by withdrawing Cambodia from its preferential trade deal, the Everything But Arms scheme), the US approach has been to target leading Cambodian officials. The apparent intention is to hurt the political, military and business elite financially, so that it’s in their own monetary self-interest to reverse the trend toward authoritarianism.

More often than not, the phrase used to justify these sanctions is that the Cambodian leaders are “undermining democracy.” That’s clear. Less clear, however, are the solutions or desired outcomes. Some are rather broad and ill-defined.

The text of the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, for example, reads that the sanctions can only be suspended if Cambodia is judged to be “making meaningful progress” toward:

  • Ending government efforts to undermine democracy;
  • Ending human-rights violations associated with undermining democracy;
  • Conducting free and fair elections which allow for the active participation of credible opposition candidates.

On September 10, Kem Sokha was transferred from prison to house arrest, the government says for health reasons but many analysts suspect that the decision was made to placate foreign criticism. The new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said at a session of the UN Human Rights Council on the day of Kem Sokha’s release that she welcomed the move, but added that the Cambodian government should also:

“Release, and drop charges against, all other political actors, journalists and ordinary citizens arrested or convicted for exercising their human rights. Sustainable development requires the authorities to protect and expand the space for civil society, including NGOs, the media and political opponents, in an environment of dialogue that allows all Cambodians to have a voice – including those who may be critical of government decisions.”

Here we find some demonstrable demands (the release of prisoners) and some ill-defined ones (expand the space for civil society). Yet it is possible to say, with some variation, that the list of demands by foreign nations, including the US, are as follows: the release of Kem Sokha from jail and the dropping of accusations of treason, the reinstatement of the CNRP as a legitimate party, the lifting of restrictions on civil-society organizations and the media, and the release of political prisoners.

In one sense, the Cambodian government is moving in this direction. It did release Kem Sokha this month, though as I was told by one commentator, “Putting someone on bail and under house arrest is only incrementally better than imprisoning him.” Moreover, August saw a slew of royal pardons being handed out to jailed activists or commentators, including Tep Vanny, Kim Sok and 14 CNRP members, while the two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists arrested for “espionage” last year were released on bail last month. This fits the government’s normal habit of arresting critics pre-election then releasing them post-election.

But some of the other demands are less likely to happen. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that the CNRP will be allowed to return as a legitimate political party once again. Hun Sen has made that quite clear and it would take some rhetorical galvanism for him to allow a “treasonous” (in the government’s words) party to compete in elections again. Neither is it likely that Sam Rainsy, the party’s former president, will ever be allowed to lead a political party again – or return to the country. He has been in exile since late 2015.

Then, however, we come to the demands that are generic and difficult to ascertain if they are being conducted. Take media freedom. The release of the two former RFA journalists on bail is a positive step, yet the courts could still jail them with their trials ongoing. Outside this case, definitions become more difficult.

For most, the standard bearers of independent media in Cambodia were the two English-language daily newspapers, the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post. But the former was closed last year for taxation reasons, which was seen as politically motivated, while the latter was bought out by government-friendly owners this year and is now a husk of its former self, many analysts say.

So is an expanded space for the media, to paraphrase Bachelet, going to judged by the activities of the Post or the similarly government-friendly Khmer Times? Moreover, what is overlooked by many observers, especially foreign governments, is that the Khmer-language media were heavily curtailed long before 2017 and before the problems of the Daily, the Post and the CNRP.

An equally difficult demand to judge is, in Bachelet’s words, to “expand the space for civil society.” How is this to be calculated? Moreover, are Western nations again going to pour in the money that led to the expansion of civil society in the first place, particularly during the 1990s and 2000s?

Last, how is “conducting free and fair elections which allow for the active participation of credible opposition candidates,” in the words of the Cambodia Democracy Act, going to be judged now that the general election has taken place, and the next election (for commune positions) won’t happen until 2021?

But, for a moment, let us imagine that all of the demands actually do take place: Kem Sokha is freed and his charges dropped, the CNRP is allowed to re-form as a legitimate party, journalists are no longer intimidated or arrested, and NGOs are allowed to say what they like. What then? In effect, it will return Cambodian politics to how it was circa late 2014.

Clearly, that is preferable to today. Yet the ruling CPP will still control all 125 seats in the National Assembly (there isn’t any demand of holding a fresh general election) as well as all but four seats in the Senate, the upper house, and roughly 95% of all locally elected positions, according to one estimate.

Moreover, the political mechanisms that allowed all the problems to happen will still be in place. Laws will still be on the books that can easily dismantle opposition parties and independent media, as well as the same gyved judiciary that led to numerous activists being arrested for questionable charges.

It would be difficult to see this as any form of progress; instead, it will simply be a recalibration back to some level of functionality – or, in the eyes of foreign statesmen, tolerability.